A Peek Behind the Curtain of Team Athletics

Its December 29th and campus is barren. Student, teachers, even store owners are away for the holiday not to return until the start of the Spring semester sometime mid-January. I wake up in a cold house to a merciless alarm warning me I’ve got 30 minutes to get out of bed, eat, and be on the way. I head to the brush my teeth and find Tyson doing the same. Bob comes out of his room and heads downstairs where Dennis and Sebastian are eating. 20 minutes later we’re out the door and in the snow, trudging to the gym for the days first practice. There, we walk into a locker room of 18 equally as cold men. Each has sacrificed their winter break and time at home to wake up early and train. As we sit awaiting our coaches there's no self-pity or frustration but laughter and excitement. Inside jokes from the previous night's shenanigans spark banter among us. Eventually, the coaches enter the locker room and urge us to remember these cold mornings in the gym during the holidays. He says that one day we’ll look back as champions on the many sacrifices we will make that season, and if we fall short of the win, we’ll look back on those same times happy to have spent them with each other in pursuit of something truly special.   

There are many things to miss about being a collegiate athlete but personally, the hardest things to leave behind are the camaraderie, environment, and pursuit of a championship. Being a member of a college team is, I think, unlike anything in the world. Transitioning out can be difficult but there are ways to make the process manageable.

College is a massive developmental period in the lives of many young people. Members are brought together from all over, joined, in the beginning, by nothing more than their love for a sport that frequently doesn’t love them back. As you’re immersed in that environment, you grow and become yourself alongside people who live and breath with you. These bonds become greater than friendships, its genuine brotherhood. Like your brothers around you, you each have similar routines including school, gymnastics, meetings, study hours, and community service to name a few. You sacrifice the life of a “normal” college student forgoing countless events including the frequent bar visits, not to say you don’t celebrate where you can! No one truly knows what you’re going through or what you’re sacrificing for, except, of course, your brothers.

For four years of your life, you get the opportunity to pursue one of the most prestigious titles in athletics surrounded by a group of people you come to call your family. You live with these people sharing not only homes, meals, and passing conversation but deep personal struggles and laughter you never thought possible. Never in life do people get the opportunity to have the undying support of 23 individuals. Some of my absolute best memories take place between the hours of 3-5am. The saying goes “Nothing good ever happens past midnight” but I’d often find myself talking long into the night about life, team, family, and anything else you can think of. The talks, some philosophical, some of the ambition, and others too ridiculous to remember how they started, brought us closer. We came to know each other more personally, in many regards, than did our own blood. These are people I will have in my life forever through the magnitude of which they are present changed dramatically following graduation and nothing could have prepared me for that loss.

Video by Monica Wilner

Goals change following retirement/graduation, even time passes differently. As an athlete, calendar dates were understood merely on their relation to competitions. While in school and competing, NCAA and Big 10 championships were certainties, each a pinnacle in their own regard, as they relate to a long season. Championships were discussed daily, even hourly, and when they weren’t being discussed you can believe they never left our minds. We all knew the mission, each of us motivated uniquely but unified by a burning desire to compete alongside each other, as a unit, and to win. There’s nothing quite like that in life. Sporting events have the power to bring people, specifically the athletes, together in ways nothing else can. The desire to be great and love for each other gives you strength to endure countless hardships for the single opportunity each year to prove to others what you and your brothers know to be true.

Photo by Jessica Frankl

Photo by Jessica Frankl

That’s difficult for any athlete to let go of. Athletics allows us to delve deep into our competitive nature beside others who want and feel similarly. The surrounding support of brothers, coaches, and staff, all eager to help you along your way to greatness, become your family. Years you live in an environment designed to help you succeed, with people you’ll never want to leave.

Sport prepares individuals, in many ways, for life very well. But, when you look closely, it becomes very clear why countless struggle to take that next step when the competitions end.

Now retired, I’m learning ways to manage the sometimes overwhelming change. Though it can feel like a heavy loss I try to focus on the regular excitements in the new chapter of my life while remembering the past fondly. I find it best to follow a daily routine, be open to new friendships, and set goals.  

Routine is a key factor in the life of an athlete. Maintaining that post-athletics can keep you motivated and on task. It can be a challenge to follow a routine. You’re no longer one of many on a similar schedule and there is usually no one watching over you in the way a coach or manager had. Holding yourself accountable is a skill that strengthens in time and I’ve found I’m happier when I have a purpose.

I’ve found it most challenging to build new relationships. Even for an outgoing person like myself, I’ve become so close to those on my team that other friendships seem to pale in comparison. Though the friendships are bound to be different it’s important to branch out. Your brothers will always be there and while you may not see them quite as frequently, the times you do will be special. It is important to connect with other groups and people as you journey forward.

Lastly, set goals. Nothing can compare to the excitement and drive of an NCAA championship but setting benchmarks down the road keep you motivated, excited put the competitive nature to positive use. Discover what excites you and pursue it.

Being an athlete is an incredible experience but what comes next may prove to offer an all-new excitement you never saw coming

Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.
Harry Mclellan